Banning ads will do nothing to tackle root causes of alcohol abuse


AN all-out nuclear assault on alcohol producers and retailers, breathtaking in its scope and set to take a wrecking ball to even more business sectors – that summarises my reaction to Scottish Government plans to restrict alcohol advertising and promotions set out in a consultation launched last November, writes Jack Cummins.

In last month’s legal column I detailed the measures that could see alcohol being airbrushed from the public realm: an end to sports and events sponsorship, a ban on advertising in the public realm, the end of online advertising and draconian curbs on shops’ alcohol displays. 

In the interval, business leaders have reacted with utter dismay, issuing dire warnings as to the scale of the threat to the industry.

Plus, from a lawyer’s perspective, it’s becoming even clearer that the proposals are poorly thought out – and at least some of the restrictions under contemplation may be simply unenforceable.

Reflecting my own concern that the on-trade could find itself suffering collateral damage, the scale of the potential carnage is admirably captured in a ‘call to arms’ by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA). 

According to the SLTA, an advertising embargo could see the pub trade ‘dragged back decades’ with the potential for blackened out windows, in case an alcohol promotion might be seen ‘from’ a public space. 

Branded umbrellas in outdoor drinking areas – even beer mats – also come to mind. 

The whisky industry could of course suffer a massive impact, particularly in relation to tourism where it contributes an estimated £84m annually to the Scottish economy. 

As matters stand, it’s difficult to imagine how distilleries with retail areas could manage the challenges. 

The prospects for other sectors are equally bleak. 

Music promoters have warned that ending alcohol advertising would ‘decimate’ festivals, dramatically raising the cost of tickets and leading to huge job losses. 

In the world of sport, half of the Scottish Premiership football teams are currently supported by sponsorship from drinks companies, with the Scottish Professional Football League and the Scottish FA predicting that the cost of banning alcohol promotions could run into millions of pounds. 

In fact, it seems that huge swathes of the Scottish economy would suffer cataclysmic damage, with some sectors threatened with outright annihilation. 

A question is bound to arise as to whether the consequences could ever be justified by the impetus for the proposals. 

We’re told by Maree Todd, the health minister, that the Scottish Government is intent on reducing the appeal of alcohol to young people as well as the “triggering” effect of alcohol’s visibility on problem drinkers and those in recovery from alcohol addiction. 

There’s abundant evidence that young people are turning away from alcohol but no reliable evidence that advertising and promotion drives consumption (its essential purpose being to increase market share). 

As to problem drinkers, it strikes me that total war on alcohol marketing is, at the very best, tinkering at the edges. 

According to official figures, alcohol-specific deaths are over five times more prevalent in the country’s most deprived areas. 

In my view, the Scottish Government should be doing much, much more to deal with the root causes of alcohol addiction rather than proposing gesture legislation that is bound to inflict mortal damage to substantial parts of the country’s economy.

Will we see a dramatic U-turn as the row over the plans continues to escalate? 

Is it just possible that the government have purposefully pumped up the consultation document proposals, intending to scale back so that those set to be affected will breathe a sigh of relief that the very worst hasn’t come to pass? 

In any case, make no mistake – this is far bigger than anything we’ve seen before in the alcohol regulation arena. 

By comparison, the controversy over minimum pricing fades into insignificance.